It is twilight in Shennongjia when a bat flits across the sky, leaving a trace of a novel virus in its droppings which fall to the forest floor. Rita is rooting around amongst the fallen leaves, scrummaging for the food she knows is in there when she stands right in it.
“Oh blast! Not again. That’s the second time. Filthy buggers!” she groans, trying to wipe her foot clean on some leaves. Little does she know but she picks up a dreaded lurgy at the same time. She shuffles on, trying to hurry, but leaving behind a perfectly-formed footprint, clearly visible in the pile of fresh bat poo. She wants to get back to little Kevin or he will be crying for his dinner. She is quite ungainly in her gait. Nobody would dream of calling her dainty, put it that way. Just as she passes the cypress tree which conceals her home from any nosey folk passing by, she feels something heavy land on her back and what little daylight is left abruptly vanishes. That is the last thing Rita remembers from before her kidnapping.
The most awful smell awakens her when she uncurls herself and tries to look around. She cannot see much; her eyesight is pretty poor at the best of times. Nothing wrong with her sense of smell though, the stench almost overpowers her.
“Jesus, what a stink! Whatever is that? And where am I?”
“Better get used to the pong, it ain’t gonna go away anytime soon,” comes a nasally voice from just next to her, “Welcome to the wet market, Babe.”
“The name’s Rita,” she says, trying unsuccessfully to unroll and straighten her legs. She is too tightly jammed up against her neighbours.
“Oh sorry, Babe, mine’s Dave. Pleased to meet ya.”
“Don’t you mind him, Rita. He calls all us females ‘Babe’. You’ll get used to it. I’m Doris by the way.”
On the other side, Rita is crammed up against iron railings, unable to get to her feet and unable to turn and look at Doris. She can feel Dave’s back pressing against hers. On top of that, she is starting to feel rather ill. Her head is pounding, and her eyes are running.
“What is this ‘wet market’ place? What’s going on? Who are you all?”
“No panic, no panic,” drawls another voice from underneath her leg, “but please will you calm down up there, and stop writhing about like that. Yer just makin’ things worse for everyone around yer. We’re all in this 'ere prison together.”
“Leave it out, Stanley. She’s just frightened.”
“Aren’t we all, Doris?” replies Stanley, ‘’Sure wish I knew what 'appened, meself. I mean, there I was, mindin’ me own business, just about to sit me down for a good ol’ feastin’ of ant eggs. Then, it were as if someone switched all the lights off, just like that. I remember thinking ‘What the fuck’s goin’ on 'ere?’ and then 'ere I am, stuck in this place wiv all you good folks.”
“Anyhow, we’ve all just got to try and make the best of it” says Doris, rubbing her eyes, “My eyes are getting really itchy all of a sudden. Must be coming down with something.”
Dave twists around to look at her. “What, you too, Babe? Mine have started running as well.”
“Can someone please tell me what this wet market place is? asks Rita, “and why are we all cooped up in here together like this? I’ve got to be getting back to my Kevin at home. He’ll be going crazy by now. He’s only a week old.” Her voice breaks and she starts to sob.
Doris sighs and reaches out to touch her. “Oh Rita, I do feel for you, love. None of us want to be here. We’re all prisoners, just like you.”
“I hear we’re better off here than being taken away like Joe and that lot yesterday though,” says Pete, “At least we’re all still alive and in one piece.”
“Oh shit, look out everyone! Here comes trouble!” shouts Dave, rolling himself into a tiny ball as the lid of their cramped cage is yanked open.
A grubby hand reaches in, picking him up, along with Rita and five others and drops them all unceremoniously into a net bag. The worker then slings them over his shoulder, walks over to a huge metal table, wipes the surface with a damp rag and dumps them down.
In case you hadn’t already guessed, Rita and her new friends are pangolins, and they are about to be thrown into a pot of boiling water to remove their prized scales before being butchered.
The Chinese believe pangolin scales contain medicinal properties, although as they are made of keratin, just like human hair and nails, this seems highly unlikely.
These shy, inoffensive little creatures, the only mammals on Earth with scales, have been around for eighty million years but now face imminent extinction because of us. Homo Sapiens has existed for a mere two hundred thousand, by the way.
Anyway, back to Rita’s footprint. Sure, it is possible she might have been the intermediary host to have harboured the coronavirus and passed it on to the workers who slaughtered her and the others at the market, but this is far from certain. The point is that coronaviruses attack a variety of birds and mammals, and wet markets create ideal conditions for pathogens to pass from one species to another, including to people.
The poaching and mixing-up of so many animals from different countries and habitats is a recipe for disaster. With the current spread of Covid-19, there is a public health lesson to be learnt. If we want to prevent future epidemics of diseases that begin in animals, we really must halt the global trade in wildlife. Now!
Author Notes: I would be pleased to hear your comments.....